Home » Eye to eye with Anna Bilinska

Eye to eye with Anna Bilinska

Bilinska, Self-portrait with apron and brushes. 1887.

Bilinska, Self-portrait with apron and brushes. 1887.

At about the same time as Therese Schwartze was peering back at Reynolds, Anna Bilinska was facing us – eye to eye.

Anna Bilinska’s multi-layered painting is one of my favourites. When I’m feeling buoyant, I fancy myself chatting easily with this attractive woman – who appears to have sat down momentarily on the sitter’s chair, almost inadvertently catching her own likeness. I want to be her friend, have coffee together and ask about her day.

At other times I feel challenged by her gaze; caught in a stare-down with someone who is demanding an answer from me. She is of course, staring at her own reflection in a mirror and so demands this answer from herself. The eyes are clear, direct and engaging. Her smile is fixed in a slightly static position –  her shapely lips settling into an expression backed with a sense of resignation. I see this work as deeply introspective and as viewer I desperately want to give her the answer she seeks.

I can also look at this piece and see sadness – the subject and sitter exposed – her heavy lidded eyes masking something burdensome or grueling. Her very pose in front of the canvas drop (the studio backdrop for sitters) is somehow weary. There is something weighty about her load. She is showing us how it is for her – the heavy palette leaning on the floor, the apron creased and worn and her hair disheveled. A working painter indeed, and one that shows us significant depth of feeling in this self-examination.

David, Self-portrait. 1794

David, Self-portrait. 1794

For me Bilinska’s work has the same emotional impact as Jacques-Louis David‘s famous self-portrait completed while he was imprisoned for his part in the French Revolution and for his political affiliations with Robespierre. David however, believing he was to be executed, looks within with the same inquisitional stare – a sort of pleading with self – for clarity, for freedom and perhaps for understanding. Both paintings show this quality, though Anna Bilinski hadn’t endorsed human atrocities and isn’t fearing for her life! Nor do I feel she is seeking penance as well David might …

Such preparedness to declare true self in paint and canvas was relatively rare. It’s something we take for granted and perhaps even expect, but we are seeing self-portraiture after Freud, after Picasso and after Modernism changed the way we think and see. It’s also significant that Anna Bilinska was examining herself thus at about the same time photography was providing creative and inventive methods of examining role and gender – a great topic for future posts.

Remember to click on the paintings to look at the larger version.


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